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An Indie Superstar's Slow Road to Sobriety

Soul Coughing was one of America's most acclaimed (and drug-addled) indie bands. In a new memoir, The Book of Drugs, its lead singer describes how the 12 Steps saved his life.

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Da Capo Press

By Mike Doughty

02/06/12

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I met Molly Escalator at a gig in the early 1990s, when Soul Coughing was just a local band. She had been sober for years. She told me stories of her salad days as a runaway in the old, weird New York—shooting dope on the Lower East Side as a teenage punk rocker and weaning herself off heroin on her mom’s farm in Delaware, facilitated by shooting up horse tranquilizer with gigantic veterinary needles. By the time we were dating she figured out that I had a major weed appetite. Which she tolerated.

On New Year’s Eve, I heard about this disagreeable guy who had bought a shit-ton of cocaine and was throwing a party. He let people have his cocaine so they’d hang out with him. But, alas, I was just stopping by. Molly had lent out her tiny East Village studio apartment to her twin brothers, and therefore had to stay the night at my place in Brooklyn.

So I packed my face with this guy’s cocaine, fast as I could get it in. Then I went to Molly’s, sweating like a monster, looking so freaked out that I concocted a lie about getting accosted on the subway. Molly and I went to a boring party that most people had already left, and I kissed her, and then dove into a long babble about Wow, Molly Escalator, you’re really special, and I just want to tell you . . .

“How much cocaine did you do?” she asked. She could taste it in my kiss.

A little while later when I was on tour, I went to sleep in a motel in Akron, Ohio, on a warm evening, listening to soft rain; when I woke up, it had turned into a violent snowstorm, and I got an e-mail from Molly saying she’d left me for a famous artist from the rooms.

The rooms were twelve-step meetings. They’re shorthanded as “the rooms,” or “the program,” or “the fellowship,” among other things. I find calling the rooms “the program” to have a Huxleyan vibe, and “the fellowship” sounds to me like something involving a skull-faced man screaming about Jesus. So I’ll go with “the rooms.”

I sat in a hotel in Wisconsin, shaking because I hadn’t had my morning drink yet, and I typed Molly an e-mail. I told her that I went through a bad heroin binge, and it nearly killed me, and now I have to be drunk all day. I could accept being a drug addict, but I can’t accept being a drunk. Can you please take me to one of those meetings of yours?

(I’m going to walk a line between talking about my experiences in the rooms, and not violating other peoples’ anonymity. Twelve-step programs are not called, for instance, Narcotics Talk About It in Your Book, or Alcoholics Reveal Themselves Publicly, but it would be disingenuous to pretend I’m not riding a line by talking about it. The danger is that you’re going to read this book and think that I’m speaking some kind of party line. I wouldn’t be anybody’s spokesperson, it’s unlikely anybody would want me to be their spokesperson, and there is no party line, truly, definitively, absolutely none.)

(More likely, you might think: fuck this guy, if I ever was interested in twelve-step programs, I’m not anymore, because those rooms are chock full of self-righteous Mike Doughtys. That’s not the case. There is variety in the people, just as there is anywhere else in life—you can find people who reflect your experience, or people who reflect something completely unlike your experience. I found freaky intellectuals who cultivated their insanity, whom I wanted to be like.)

(Here’s the other thing: like I said, I might get fucked up again.)

When Molly talked about the rooms, my mind’s ear heard a prison door clanging shut. There was something sort of alluring around the edges when she’d talk about a meeting she’d just been to—a sense of peace and grooviness, like the meeting had done some sort of magic—but mostly I saw it as a weird cult.

It exasperated me, for utterly no reason. She told me how she’d met a famous ex-junkie singer at some event, and later he knocked on her hotel room door and said, “Want to go get some soup?” Soup! What’s romantic and reprobate about soup?

After Molly dumped me, I moped around, listening to the Teddy Riley remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” over and over. Tiresomely, she kept calling. “You have to be my friend,” she said. Like fuck I have to, I replied.

Molly kept showing up now and then, and she’d always have something new going on: she had fallen in love with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, so she’d learned to play piano; she read all these mystery novels, so she started corresponding with the authors; she’d gotten interested in horse racing and was writing a book about it.

I was the rock star, I was the one with the things going on and the awesomeness. What business did she have with an interesting life?

In fact, what I was doing was getting high alone in a room, getting high in the back of a bus, getting high as I lay in bed.

I sat in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, shaking because I hadn’t had my morning drink yet, and I typed her an e-mail. I told her that I went through a bad heroin binge, and it nearly killed me, and now I have to be drunk all day. On some essential level, I could accept being a drug addict, but I can’t accept being a drunk. Can you please take me to one of those meetings of yours?

That’s why she kept that line open all those years.

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